Creating Spencer Makenzie's Fish Company was a labor of love for John and Jennifer Karayan, who spent 20 years perfecting their eclectic Californian recipes before sharing them with the public. Named after the couple's 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, the business began as a concession trailer at festivals and fairgrounds, presenting healthful alternatives to traditional fast-food options without sacrificing speedy service. The concept took off, and the trailer eventually blossomed into a permanent location a couple of blocks from the shore.
Although the chefs use only sashimi-grade fish and make everything from clam chowder to sauces and salsas in-house, they don't stray far from the restaurant's unpretentious fairground roots. The Ventura County Reporter recognized the company's dual commitment to quality and convenience in 2011, honoring the eatery with awards for Best Fish Taco and Best Cheap Eats.
The same thoughtfulness with which John and Jennifer designed the healthful and flavorful menu led them to embrace a variety of environmentally friendly practices. In addition to donating their used trans-fat-free cooking oil to biodiesel refineries, they exclusively stock the restaurant with biodegradable plates, utensils, and employees.
Chalkboards of handwritten specials, an acoustic soundtrack by artists such as Jack Johnson and Bob Marley, and 36-inch flat-screen televisions playing skateboarding, surfing, and sporting events add to Spencer Makenzie's Fish Company's casual, laid-back ambiance. At the same time, photographs of local beaches line the walls and serve as a gentle reminder of the inspiration behind the ocean-fresh menu.
With an eclectic menu that includes tapas, paninis, entrees, and fresh, homemade gelato, this Spanish/Mediterranean establishment keeps taste buds aflutter with pan-cultural palate pulchritude. Chef Laurel Moore selects the finest-quality meats and produce from Ojai farms and ranches and even grows some of her own fruits and veggies in the Azu garden. Lunch selections include lighter options such as the jamon serrano and manchego panini (Spanish ham, manchego cheese, drizzled with olive oil on wheat ciabatta, $8) and the roasted beet salad (duo of beets, ricotta salata, fried chickpeas, Moroccan olives, and sherry vinaigrette, $13). Dinner comes tailored to either your inner Arnold Schwarzenegger or Danny DeVito, with larger entrees including the oven-roasted wild Alaskan salmon (marinated in Moroccan spices, served with roasted butternut squash and vegetable and dried fruit Israeli couscous, $25), and small tapas such as the lamb kabobs (ground lamb and Moroccan spices served with cucumber tzatziki, $11) and stuffed dates (organic dates stuffed with chorizo and wrapped in bacon, $9). Wines from the Mediterranean region (25 varieties offered by the glass) or house cocktails such as the Spanish martini (Belvedere, Chambord, pineapple juice and a float of Cava, $14) fulfill aqua vitae appetency, while seasonal homemade gelato, such as the mango chili lime, is a great finish to the feast or an suitable take-home face moisturizer. Reservations are recommended, so go online to reserve a table.
“Good food and cheerful service,” as described by the Ventura Country Star, combine with vibrant mustard-yellow walls at La Herradura Mexican Grill, where a menu of mouthwatering Jalisco dishes transports taste buds to new epicurean shores. Mole sauce marks tender chicken with a scarlet "A" for "awesome" in the mole poblano con pollo ($8), and a dozen types of burrito ($5.50) swaddle succulent fillings in their savory cylinders. Despite its size, the al pastor taco refuses to skimp on flavor, serving up saucy, barbecued pork within a crunchy, crackly shell ($1.50). Diners can treat lips to regional sips of horchata or tamarind tea as they await the tableside delivery of crispy churros, whose deep-fried shell conceals sweet pleasures and rough drafts of the Constitution penned in chocolate syrup ($5.50). Owners Fernando and Virginia Duarte play a hands-on role in the operation of their restaurant, sourcing the ingredients themselves and occasionally serving it to gaggles of hungry fans.
Pete's Breakfast House flips cakes, cracks eggs, and stirs up other farm-fresh ingredients for made-to-order breakfast and lunchtime eats. An extensive menu of daybreak chow pampers palates of off-duty owls and midday risers alike. Breakfast plates act as garage-door openers for the eyelids with options like the Biscuit Plate, on which eggs, bacon, sausage, and biscuits skinny dip in a slather of homemade gravy ($7.75). Fodder aficionados marvel at the use of culinary envelopes in the pesto omelet, which tucks spinach, mushrooms, pesto, parmesan, and jack cheese in a bed of eggs for a postrooster nap ($8.95). The frittata kicks the covers off fresh veggies and cheese to be served open-faced ($9.25).
Busy Bee Cafe engenders memories of poodle skirts and soda shops with an evocative mix of '50s décor and classic American fare. Loaded skins kick off the nostalgic menu with a selfless gesture, as potatoes shed their outer layer to be piled with jack and cheddar cheese, bacon bits, and dipping sauce ($5.99). Busy Bee Cafe's Reuben sandwich is a crowd favorite, with a mouthwatering stockpile of corned beef or pastrami, garnished with heaps of sauerkraut, coleslaw, potato salad and cheese, and doused in tangy thousand island dressing ($9.95). A Busy Bee Cafe's specialty, the chicken fried steak dons a contradictory moniker in a futile attempt to throw voracious diners off their mission to devour its mix of grilled and battered beef, topped in homemade country gravy ($12.99 for dinner). Classic ice-cream sodas deliver a velvety blow that knocks palates back to the olden days of lunch counters and Eisenhower Halloween costumes ($4.45).
At Rice Thai Cuisine, there might as well be only three colors in the rainbow: yellow, green, and red. Those varieties of curry?and their varying herbs and spices?highlight the restaurant's traditional Thai menu. As an added option, each hot, spicy curry may be tempered with the cooling flavors of pineapple and avocado, just as people in tropical climates throw pineapples into volcanoes to cool down the lava. Of course, the kitchen also prepares Thai classics such as crab fried rice, drunken noodles, pad thai, and deep-fried catfish.?
One word of advice: know how much spiciness you can handle, and ask the server for some guidance. As the VC Reporter noted in their favorable review of the restaurant's opening, dining here can be "a true adventure," and one that requires several glasses of water depending on the dish ordered.?
But drinking only water would be doing yourself a disservice, since the drink menu is just as varied as the food. Along with Thai tea and a selection of imported beer, wine, and sake, libations include several varieties of soju cocktails, which should pair nicely with the restaurant's signature dessert: sweet sticky rice served with ripe mango.